A few weeks ago, I took my mom shopping for a refrigerator to replace the one that had been in the kitchen since the Nixon administration. Pleasantries with the salesman took a more somber turn when he revealed that his wife has breast cancer and is seeking to heal herself solely through the power of prayer. My mom listened attentively, then touched the salesman on the chest and said, authoritatively, “Carrot juice! And blueberries!”
She is a believer in the restorative powers of fruits and vegetables, and of wholesome living more generally. She doesn’t reject modern medicine, nor would she seek a miracle cure through prayer or New Age therapies. But she is not someone terribly interested in medicine, or technology in general, preferring to exist in a world that is like the one she grew up in — simple, natural, earthy. She has spent her years outdoors, growing plants, doing landscaping, surrounding herself with flowers. She has often ended the day with a cold beer under the grape arbor in her back yard. The yard is a two-acre botanical wonder where she and my stepfather, Jim, have their nursery, plus a robust garden, productive citrus trees and winding footpaths among native plants and towering trees.
I called to check on her the other day. After quickly assuring me she was fine, she launched into a prescription for how I might reduce some minor leg pain that’s been bothering me: “Point one foot at the North Pole and one foot at the South Pole and bend over and touch the floor,” she said.
Though full of medical advice for others, she doesn’t talk much about her own illness, and it didn’t seem to occur to her to tell the appliance salesman that she, too, has breast cancer, stage 3. Here’s the key fact about my mom: She doesn’t consider herself sick.
She’s the opposite of a hypochondriac, never missing a chance to brag about her unusually good posture and the physical strength that many women her age would envy. She informs doctors that her nickname is Tough Lady. When I asked her if I could write something about her medical situation, she said, “Make sure to include what I tell every doctor: ‘I’m not old, and I’m not sick!’ ”
No question, she has a wonderful attitude, and her sunny disposition if distilled and bottled would be sold in every drugstore on the planet.
A fine line
But an objective account of Emily Notestein’s health history, and of her attitude toward medicine, would surely note that she has not been a diligent student of her disease and that she showed no interest in seeking aggressive treatment when it first appeared. There is a fine line between optimism and denial. The power of positive thinking goes only so far.
How aggressively we deal with cancer hinges in part on age and whether the disease threatens to truncate a life dramatically or merely lop off some years in the final decade or two. And cancer in a septuagenarian can be more indolent than cancer in a young woman. Thus, an older person like my mother faces a different mental calculation than someone who is in the prime of her life. Cancer at 76 doesn’t feel like a tragedy.